Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Jacaranda’, a co-production between Pentabus Theatre and Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake, which he saw as it toured to Habberley Village Hall in Shropshire.
As the extensive and enthusiastic applause for Pentabus Theatre’s new play finally subsided, the Chairman of Habberley Village Hall carefully opened the farm gate that led onto the set to offer his heart-felt vote of thanks. Then he fixed the audience with his gimlet eye and added, “Of course, as a countryman, I could also tell you a fair few things about gamekeepers.” He got a huge laugh, because we, the rural audience, fully understood what mysterious, marginalised figures game keepers are. Rarely seen. Seldom heard. Scarcely spoken about.
Writer Lorna French had already noticed this.
Her new play, ‘Jacaranda’, places two edge-dwellers by the same stream on the same mid-summer’s night, both wary of the other. Olivia is an equine vet, recently moved into the village. She’s young and conscientious. But she’s also a black Zimbabwean who has already learned to avoid the stares. She now drives everywhere to avoid eye contact. Quite what the conservative horse-owning community make of her is, as yet, unresolved.
In Elle While’s delightfully subtle production, she too respectfully closes the old iron gate which leads onto a raised set, smothered in blankets like a giant unmade bed. She is injured. She struggles to take her boots off. The fact that the boots become sticky is just enough to suggest a stream. It is a cold blue northern night, filled with nocturnal calls emanating from small speakers spread around the tiny hall. But as she remembers her childhood, the light turns a rosy warm colour and distant elephant trumpets can be heard. The play is constantly cradled in ‘atmosphere’, the effects beautifully restrained, so as not to compete with one’s imagination.
Stumbling into her tranquillity comes Matty, a gamekeeper with a gun, desperate to catch the ‘antis’ who are hell bent on releasing his hard-raised pheasant chicks. He is convinced Olivia is one of the offenders until he comes close enough to see. This is the misunderstanding that divides them until their commonality emerges. They both work in the vital animal economy and both are victims of ignorant prejudice.
The ‘black individual in a white community’ is a familiar theatrical theme. For Lorna French to pair her up with an equally ‘distanced’ game keeper is a stroke of genius. Their tentative reconciliation is a lovely piece of slow theatre, peppered with spare dialogue and plenty of thinking time. We enjoy some exquisite, uncompromising, small-space acting that works beautifully in such an intimate venue…the actors, Mara Allen and Stuart Laing, literally performing at the audiences’ knee.
They engage in puppetry without puppets. An old overcoat becomes an injured Curlew who they tend together…. Olivia’s shawl becoming its broken wing and the handles of Matty’s wire cutters its expressive beak. Her nest has been ravaged by a prowling fox and we see just enough of a bundle of twigs to share their concern about the chicks’ fate. The game keeper sees the vixen purely as vermin. The vet recognises she has cubs to feed. They are at either end of the human spectrum.
But as humans, what they have in common is a reluctance to talk openly and earnestly with the ones they love most. It takes a tentative truce to solve that one.
This is the kind of theatre that Pentabus has been excelling at for decades. Watching ‘Jacaranda’ last Friday reminded me of a winter’s night in 1985, shortly after the BBC posted me to Shropshire, when I went to my local village hall … just because everyone else was going … parked next a battered old red van, and saw Pentabus for the very first time. I was completely entranced then, as I was on Friday.
Pentabus has grown up with its audience. The knockabout family shows of the 80s – with a gentle timeless moral – have morphed into deeply thoughtful, philosophical adult plays for today. The personnel may have changed several times over … and they’ve got though a hell of a lot of vans … but the spirit shines ever more brightly.
They are still taking live, meaningful, top-quality theatre to the back end of beyond and transfixing audiences. No wonder the Habberley village hall chairman was so effusive. He’d probably not seen the like in a long time.
Photo : Andrew Billington